HC Deb 25 July 1973 vol 860 cc1629-31

12.35 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower and require regular notifications by male spouses of their incomes from all sources to their wives; and where applicable reciprocal notifications by wives in receipt of incomes not emanating from their spouses and notifications of all or any changes therein. The House by now is used to being deserted when Ten-Minute Bills are introduced, even if they involve, as I believe this Bill does, important subjects. Without being presumptuous I suggest, however, that the House might have had a better attendance if, as originally envisaged, today had been the penultimate day of the Session.

This is an important measure for a number of reasons. The furore that this idea has caused in certain quarters is almost as great as would have happened if it were proposed that Dr. Caetano should be a Knight Commander or that traffic wardens should be exempt from income tax. But the Bill should not be considered in the context of the alarm which might be felt about it in certain quarters. It must be looked at in a balanced way. It must be seen as part and parcel of the modern world and modern Britain. There should be a balance of rights between married couples to know the details of incomes emanating in the household, primarily from husbands but also from earning wives.

This proposal is long overdue not only in the more fundamental context of the gradual equality between sexes, which I welcome very much, but also when considering the gradual emancipation of women in many ways, and of married women in certain ways. In recent years there has been a reinforcement of their rights in respect of the property of a marriage. My Bill is one additional logical step.

There is a shorter-term reason for the Bill. It arises from the prices situation. I do not suggest that a Bill of this kind should be the sum total of Parliament's response to the grave and urgent problem of rising prices. Manufacturers, retailers and traders must take a lot of the respon- sibility. The trade unions must take a great deal of responsibility in wage restraint. There is much that the Government should do in due course to tackle urgently the problem of rising prices. But it is clear that there is an important social lacuna in the current situation whereby a minority of wives do not know how much their husbands are earning and, as a result, there could be grave injustice for them and their children and, paradoxically, for their husbands, too. I am not suggesting that there is ignorance by wives of their husbands' earnings, of recent changes in those earnings or of other incomes in the majority of marriages. I believe that most husbands tell their wives what their earnings are, but good law can arise from the need to protect a minority or to allow a minority, however small, to have an injustice removed by the legislature. Even if it were a small minority—and it may not be—such a provision would be eminently worth while.

To those who say "Gross invasion of privacy!", I reply that it is simple to provide that the wife can say" I want none of the arrangements between my husband and me to change. I am satisfied, and do not want to know his earnings. I trust him completely". It would be easy to make such a simple declaration. But there are enough embattled housewives who may not be given justice by their husbands to make the Bill worth while, although one hesitates to intervene in the private arrangements of the domestic scene.

I want to establish the right for wives who feel that they are not being treated fairly by their husbands to know what the position is. How that can be done is another question. Obviously, the mechanical provisions would need to be elaborated by way of Inland Revenue and Treasury regulations. It would be simple to allow the wife to sign the husband's tax return, where tax returns are regularly made. If there were any change in that system, it would still be easy to tackle the mechanics of the problem.

I have received many letters from wives throughout the country who say that they do not know their husbands' earnings and feel that they are badly treated. They support the Bill and I have received encouraging indication of support from many hon. Members. The Bill is not a gross invasion of privacy because of the reserve protection for husbands that I have explained. Wives support it because they have not always benefited by receiving their own "wage increases" from their husbands, although last year average earnings per man-hour rose by 14–15 per cent. The Bill would play a part in giving wives better treatment with regard to prices.

I remind those who say that the Bill concerns only an insignificant minority, and therefore is not worth bothering about, or that we should not introduce it because it is too fundamental a legal step, that last January a Gallup poll showed that about a third of the respondents up to the age of 44 had not received any increase in their housekeeping budget last year, even though on average their husbands' earnings had risen substantially. In many sectors, particularly the skilled sectors, they had risen more than average.

There is now cause for Parliament to consider the situation, even at this eleventh hour, as it were.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hugh Dykes, Sir John Rodgers, Mr. Clinton Davis, Miss Joan Hall, Mr. Maurice Edelman, Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Mr. John D. Grant, Mr. Cecil Parkinson, Mr. Edward Taylor and Mr. Christopher Tugendhat.